What’s not there

There is a painting I encountered recently titled “Butterfly.” It depicts foliage and cat, but no butterfly can be seen in the painting. However, the cat is looking up at something off the paper. One can imagine that the butterfly had just flown out of the scene before the artist could paint it, but still the cat was looking at it.

Paintings like this requires the participation of the viewer to complete the picture. The viewer supplies what is left out of the painting. That means not everyone perceives the painting in the same way. Is the butterfly yellow? Is flying away or toward the cat? Does it have spots? Today, there is a whole genre of participatory art, where the audience is required to interact with the art or become part of the performance. And everyone who participates perceives it differently.

In graphic design the space around an object is called negative space or white space. More white space in a design tends to isolate and/or emphasize the element. Sometimes the negative space is more interesting than the pictured object. Like the optical illusion of a vase, where the negative space is two faces in profile. This is also known as figure ground perception, where the object is defined by the space surrounding it.

I am a student of Japanese calligraphy and I have progressed to the point where I also need to pay attention to the composition. Lately, sensei talks to me more about the spacing within and between the characters, as well as placement on the page, more than the actual strokes of the character. While the form and brush strokes are still important, I also need to pay attention to the white space for overall composition.

I first encountered this concept of negative space and what is not there relating to tea in a shikishi hung in a tea room in Japan. The shikishi read, 雲の間 “kumo no ma” the space between the clouds. I thought to myself, that’s silly, the space between the clouds is sky. Is it a poetic way of saying sky, or is there a deeper meaning? Of course, there is always a deeper meaning to what is hung in the tokonoma. What do you think is another interpretation of 雲の間?

This concept of ma is intriguing. The dictionary definition of ma is: the gap, pause or space between two structural parts. Wikipedia says that “ma is not something that is created by compositional elements; it takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. Therefore, ma can be defined as the experiential place understood with emphasis on interval.” In music it could be the space between the notes, not the notes themselves. In Japanese gardening the space between the rocks, trees or bushes.

The Japanese idea of ma is about creating moments of awareness, rest, and quiet. We need to create interruptions or absences that allow for reflection, or for differences to be reconciled.

This led me to think about what is not there or the negative space in temae. The negative space is when no action is taking place and sometimes can be more interesting than when there is action taking place. What could be interesting about the pauses in temae, when it seems like nothing is going on? I have been taught that there is a rhythm to temae. There is action and inaction, movement and rest, sound and silence. It is interesting how the pauses in temae emphasize what is going on. Just like white space will call attention to elements in design, pauses and silence give meaning to actions.

When I am doing a presentation of chanoyu, people often ask me if there is talking is allowed. Many people are uncomfortable with the silence and try to fill it with chit chat. However, in the silence, if one is listening with your mind and spirit, many things are going on. There is what I call the intimate silence, where people can communicate at many levels and feel closer and more intimate than when having a conversation.

The go, go and do more pace of our lives rarely values time for reflection, let alone rest and silence. There is always something to be done, something to cross off our “to do” list. Which brings us back to “kumo no ma.” Which may suggest to us to slow down and fill our time and space not with things or deeds, but reflection, meaning and planning.

For many people, the Corona virus has given us a pause in our life. Not working, staying home, cancelling meetings, going out only for essential things gives us time to reflect on our lives, something that we rarely have time for. It gives us time to figure out what truly is important to us and to rest, gather our resources, and perhaps sit in silence for the first time in a long time.

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Tea presentation in the time of Covid

I don’t have a lot of time to post, but here is an article for an upcoming Chado presentation.

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Issoan Annual Poetry Gathering

A new year dawns and the students at Issoan gathered for the 2nd annual poetry gathering.  Because of social distancing, we met over zoom and composed 36 verses in a modified linked verse format. Each verse is a 5 line poem based on the link theme.  The last line of the previous poem becomes the first line of the current poem.  It was easy and a lot of fun, even if some people didn’t feel comfortable at first in their poetic abilities.

Along the way we had snacks, sweets and tea, and lunch.  And sake.  Lots of sake to grease the wheels of creativity. It was a relaxed social time, and it was way for individuals to bond and contribute to the whole project.  I loved how the last line of the last verse is the first line of the first verse.  Enjoy

The poem for 2021:

A new day dawns
Bright and hopeful
I stand on the porch
Thinking of the year
The past is behind us

The past is behind us
Shadows brushed away
A breath of new hope
The birth of the first dream
Sunlight gently revealing

Sunlight gently revealing
Glowing pink rays
Rise behind the mountain
Dawn’s mist slowly waning
Light glimmers on her shoulders

Light glimmers on her shoulders
White cape brilliant against the sky
Stark and lonely
The mountain sleeps
Waiting for spring

Waiting for spring
Frosty breath
Brisk morning walk
A turning
Scent of seiryobai (green dragon plum tree)

Scent of seiryobai
Permeates the garden
Soon the sprouts under the earth
Will be breaking the ground
Reaching for the sky.

Reaching for the sky
Stems peek out of the snow.
From last year’s seeds,
Come sprouts by the thousands,
Bringing the potential of spring.

Bringing the potential of spring
Rising from the ground
Slender and fragile
We wait expectantly
For the promises of spring

For the promises of spring
Spots of green burst to life
Painting the dark landscape
Green buds dotting branches
Young shoots reclaiming the garden

Young shoots reclaiming the garden
Behind my neighbors fence
The hop vines begin their journey
Clinging to the strong twine
Tiny buds among the woolly leaves

Tiny buds among the woolly leaves
Breezes rustle gently
Colors play as branches move
Somewhere in the tapestry
Petals open to the sun

Petals open to the sun
Dew dries, ants tickle
Fragrance rises
Glory
Even as the peony falls

Even as the peony falls
The hills come alive
With the brocade of the season
I long to see
Places that I have never been

Places I have never been–
Oh so many, both near and far.
Perhaps I will visit them
And share some tea
To forge new friendships

To forge new friendships
Filled with new hope
We laugh and plan
Waiting for spring
Eager for new discovery

Eager for new discovery
We wander far and wide
Seeking the edge of the horizon
And circling back again
To retrace your steps

To retrace your steps
I return home at last
Familiar landmarks in view
My own front door
How many sunsets ago?

How many sunsets ago
Did we last gather?
The night has been so long.
But light follows after darkness,
Wind clears away the clouds

Wind clears away the clouds
A cooling breeze
Skips down the west of Mt. Hood
Floods the valley
With hope

With hope
I look for a rest stop
In the shade
Where I can eat my lunch
Under a tree

Under a tree,
The sun filters down through the canopy.
I stare at the glimmers of light
And hear in the distance,
The sound of flowing water.

The sound of flowing water
Joyous and abundant
Spilling down the mountain
Carrying life and hope
To the valley below

To the valley below
Rays of sunlight dance through the trees
Casting a golden hue
As the hearth begins to ward off
The afternoon chill

The afternoon chill
Harbinger of fall
Have the leaves begun to turn?
I light the fire for warmth
Harvest comes

Harvest comes
We toil in the sun
Day after day
Now the fields are empty
Our storehouses are full

Our storehouses are full
We celebrate
Harvest of abundant
Grain, tea and
Memories

Memories
Moonlight shining down
Shadows reaching out
Following me home
I look overhead

I look overhead,
The skeletal limbs creak above me.
There is no sign of life
But surely there will be blooms next year.
For within the cold, there is a spark.

For within the cold, there is a spark
Glowing bright with promises
The cozy fire burning in my hearth
The chair warm with reflected light
Curled around a cup of tea

Curled around a cup of tea
I nest near the fire
Exploring far flung worlds
The written word my sole companion
As the year ticks away

As the year ticks away
Hours, like seasons
Come and go
Hush of anticipation
Silent fall, the first flakes

Silent fall the first flakes
Eyes wide in wonder
Coats donned against the cold
People dance among the flurries
Joyous laughter fills the air

Joyous laughter fills the air
Children shrieking and
Chasing each other
Playing hide-n-seek
Abundant energy.

Abundant energy.
They tumble and dash down the hill
With fierce momentum they roll
They stop. One stands up.
“Oh no!” says the girl. “Where did it go?”

Oh no!” says the girl. “Where did it go?”
They pat their pockets
And look around
Bright eyes joyous in the moment
Caught in time and perfect

Caught in time and perfect
The children return home
And adults venture out
Past and future circle and chase
A new day dawns

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Merry Christmas


Season’s greetings and Merry Christmas to all my friends and family.  I hope your holidays are healthy and safe.

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At the turn of the year

Broken things can be mended, to be made stronger and more beautiful.
In the darkness, there is a light to guide your way.
In winter, the turn of year will eventually bring the spring.
What troubles you today, will pass.

Here we are at the turn of the year 2020.  For so many it has been a hard year.  Covid has disrupted most people around the world.  We can no longer gather freely as we once did.  Friends and family members lost, economic hardship.  It seems like it will never end.

And yet nature continues oblivious of our woes.  The winter solstice means that the days will begin to lengthen again and the light will return. Spring will come, and broken things can be mended.

With the announcement of Covid vaccines, there is hope at the end of a long year.  And that is what I want to focus on.  As big and overwhelming our lives have been,  eventually it will pass as night follows the day.  The sun will shine, birds will sing and flowers will bloom again.  This is what gives me hope and gratitude that I am part of this endless cycle of living.

This year end makes me contemplate my own attitude of gratitude.  And there is much to be grateful for.  Even though Issoan is empty and lonely, I have never felt so connected to the tea community at large.  Beginning in May with the Midorikai OneWorld chakai, lectures, workshops and sweets demonstration have been so generously offered.  I am thankful that we live in this time that technology can connect us.  It is wonderful to see so many friends’ faces on the Zoom.  Thank you to all of you who have so freely offered your time and expertise to allow us to continue our Chado education.   And thank you to all of you who have participated in these activities to show us your interest and dedication to the Way of Tea.

I cannot say enough how grateful I am to my partner Craig who has put up with me these past nine months with just the two of us in the house.  We have strengthened our relationship by spending so much time together.  We have learned to cook many new recipes together, and grown more philosophical in our conversations.  We really like each other.

So even though we are still locked down due the Corona virus restrictions, I have Chado, teaching, cooking, gardening, Shodo calligraphy, and now watercolor painting to keep me occupied.  There is a return of the light and spring will come.  2021 may not instantly return to normal, but there is hope that eventually we will be able to gather, share tea, and come together again.

Thank you all for reading the blog and for your kind comments.

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